Foods can affect your health risks

Your daily diet has a huge impact on your long-term health. Some of the foods we eat every day can increase or decrease the risk of illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancer.

Learn more about the foods that can increase or decrease your cancer risk — and how sharpening your food label IQ can help you make good choices.

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Foods That May Increase Your Risk of Cancer

Processed meats

Preserved through curing, drying, or canning to increase shelf life, processed meats are at the top of the list for carcinogenic foods. Findings from the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research show that people who eat large amounts of processed meat are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Researchers believe that processed meat is carcinogenic because it’s cooked at a high temperature, has a high fat content, and contains certain cancer-causing chemicals.

Examples of processed meats include:

  • Hot dogs
  • Sausage
  • Bacon and pancetta
  • Corned beef
  • Meat jerky
  • Canned meats
  • Cold cuts and some deli meats, including ham, pepperoni, and salami

For sandwiches, consider substituting processed meats with tuna or salmon salad, a nut butter, or a plant-based vegetarian option such as grilled vegetables with hummus, fresh tomatoes, and greens.


Drinking alcohol can raise your risk of cancer of the liver, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, breast, colon, rectum, pancreas, and stomach. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your cancer risk. American Cancer Society guidelines for cancer prevention recommend limiting alcohol intake to no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women. Drinking too much alcohol also can lead to obesity, a known risk factor for some cancers.

Sugar and obesity

While sugar doesn’t directly cause cancer, eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least 13 types of cancer are linked to being overweight or obese.

But you don’t have to give up all your favorite sweet treats — it just means you should keep an eye on your overall sugar intake to decrease your risk of obesity-related cancers.

According to the American Heart Association, these are the greatest sources of added sugars in Americans’ diets:

  • Soft drinks.
  • Candy.
  • Cakes, cookies, and pies.
  • Fruit drinks.
  • Dairy desserts and milk products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt, sweetened milk).

Always Check Labels

Since obesity is a leading cause of cancer, it’s important to limit the amount of sugar and fat in your diet. But some food labels can be tricky to decipher.

For example, the American Cancer Society reports a food’s nutrition label may say it has zero trans fats — the worst type of fat. But if the ingredients list includes hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, that food has trans fat. These fats also are found in margarine, snack foods, baked goods, and fried foods

Even products marketed as healthy or natural can be full of sugars. Added sugar comes in many forms, so look out for these ingredients the next time you’re at the grocery store:

  • High-fructose corn syrup.
  • Sucrose.
  • Agave.
  • Honey.
  • Barley malt.
  • Dextrose.
  • Maltose.
  • Rice syrup.
  • Cane sugar.
  • Caramel.
  • Coconut sugar.

Foods That May Lower Your Risk of Cancer

Searching for healthier alternatives? These foods may help lower your risk of cancer so try incorporating them into your diet today:

  • Blueberries.
  • Goji berries.
  • Green tea.
  • Turmeric.
  • Ginger.
  • Leafy greens.
  • Plant-based foods.
  • Beans and legumes.

To learn more about cancer risks, visit the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center or call 412-647-2811 to make an appointment with one of our cancer experts.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.